We English can turn into green-eyed monsters when it comes to comparing wildlife with other parts of the world. Africa has the Big Five, Asia its giant pandas and tigers, the USA has cougars, grizzlies and alligators. Even other parts of Europe outdo us with their lynx, wolves and vultures. Over here (unless you live in remote parts), it’s just foxes, badgers, rabbits and the occasional polecat. We’re even a bit jealous of the Scots and their pine martens, wildcats and golden eagles.

So when a Bristol bus driver flagged down a passing police officer last February and told her he’d seen a six-foot crocodile swimming in the River Avon, not far from the city centre, the whole country sat up and took notice.


The next day, a woman claimed she too had seen the croc, and not long afterwards, a Bristol councillor insisted he’d taken a video of it. The councillor's friend in Florida (where people know a thing or two about crocodilians) told him it was a gharial, a fish eater with a long, distinctive snout. Not a floating piece of wood, then? Either way, soon after the video appeared online, the Bristol crocodile was national news. 

Lion Sighting In Essex 03 04 2014
The 'lion' snapped in Essex was most probably a Maine Coon cat. Image: Gill and Steve Atkin

A similar story played out in August 2012, when a man and a woman claimed they saw a lion sitting in a field in Essex. Police were dispatched to search, along with experts from Colchester Zoo. The nation’s press also descended on the area, looking for something ferocious. What did they find? Nothing. (But one woman did claim the culprit was her Maine Coon cat named Teddy Bear.) 

And that's just the tip of the iceberg. In 2005, BeastWatch UK reported that there had been over 10,000 sightings of exotic animals around the country in the previous six years (their list included ten crocodiles). Five years later, a study found that there were, amongst other things, Brazilian aardvarks in Cumbria, Asiatic raccoon dogs in Berkshire and a big colony of yellow-tailed scorpions ensconced in the brickwork of a dock in Kent.

It seems the English love the idea that exotic animals might be lurking around our otherwise tame little woods and hillsides. Over the last few years, there have also been stories about a giant goose-eating fish in the London Olympic Park, another lion in Gloucestershire, wolves on Dartmoor and a giant, glowing jellyfish-like creature in Bristol harbour (the latter turned out to be a publicity stunt for a TV show about magic tricks).

And then there are the famous beasts of Bodmin Moor and Exmoor, supposedly black leopards or pumas. Neil Arnold, a researcher from Kent, insists there are big cats in every British county. There have been numerous black leopard sightings in places like the Forest of Dean, in the Lake District, in parts of Scotland and, most recently, in Kent.

“The likelihood, however remote, of encountering these creatures provides a frisson of suppressed primeval fear that can be expressed or released just by reading about them.”

The trend isn't new. Reports of big cats roaming the English countryside date back to the Middle Ages. And that's hardly surprising – before the UK government passed the Dangerous Wild Animals Act in 1976, it was perfectly legal, and very fashionable, for the well-to-do English to own a leopard or a puma. Or even a wolf or crocodile.

After the law was passed in 1976, owners of such exotic pets needed a licence and a lot of money to keep the (potentially dangerous) creatures secure. If they couldn’t afford it (and the local zoo was full), some chose to just release the animals into the wild. One former lion tamer says he set a black leopard loose onto the moors near Sheffield in 1974. And it wasn't the first time he'd done it: he claims to have released (along with a fellow big-cat owner) a dozen cats into the wild. Surprisingly, they weren’t breaking the law – releasing wild animals into the English countryside became illegal only in the early 1980s.

The sheep-munching 'vampire dog of Ennerdale' could have been a thylacine, possibly an escapee from a travelling menagerie.

In the past, animals have occasionally turned up that people couldn’t identify at all. In 1810, a tawny, striped, dog-sized predator with wide, gaping jaws killed over three hundred sheep in North West England. Local sheep dogs dared not tackle it, and for six months local hunters could not catch it. The 'vampire dog of Ennerdale', as the beast became known, was so elusive and destructive that some locals believed it was a werewolf. Today, it's thought the predator could have been a thylacine, possibly an escapee from a travelling menagerie.

In centuries past, strange animals roaming the English countryside were mysteries that couldn't be cracked with the help of television, photographs or the internet. People had very little to go on when it came to working out what an animal might be ... Which helps to explain why, when King Richard the Lionheart’s pet crocodile escaped from the Royal Menagerie in the Tower of London and headed down to the North Essex marshes, locals thought they were seeing a dragon. 

So perhaps the escaped crocodiles of today are what dragons were to our ancestors. When we hear there might be one lurking somewhere not far from our neighbourhood, we’re shocked, intrigued and more than a little afraid. We also like to believe the creatures are real even when there’s little concrete evidence. Dr Karl Shuker, a zoologist specialising in unexplained phenomena, thinks he knows why. "The likelihood, however remote, of encountering one of these creatures provides a frisson of suppressed primeval fear that can still be expressed or released just by reading about them,’ he argues.

Of course, we might like the idea of large, dangerous animals roaming about, but history shows we're not so keen on the real thing. Our ancestors killed off all the large indigenous predators in England long before modern times. Pine martens, polecats and large birds of prey went the same way from the early 1800s, and in recent times, countryside interests have campaigned to kill off everything from badgers to buzzards. 

As for the infamous Bristol crocodile ... it’s been almost two months since it was first spotted and local police still haven’t found anything. Bristol Zoo isn't missing any crocodiles. A film company that shot a comedy involving two crocodiles near Bristol back in December has also denied that the creature had anything to do with them. There are, however, plenty of rats, foxes and badgers in the city and, no doubt, quite a few bits of wood floating down the River Avon.

Top header image: Yael P, Flickr